The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the Mar-a-Lago search has helped fuel GOP attacks on the IRS

Verbal attacks on federal law enforcement after the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Florida estate have become enmeshed with Republican criticism of a Democratic spending bill

An itemized list of property seized in the execution of a search warrant by the FBI at former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, shows documents listed as "Secret," "Confidential" and "Top Secret" after being released by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S. August 12, 2022. REUTERS/Jim Bourg (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
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After Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) spent 15 minutes on a Monday tele-town hall running through his recent work in Congress, he opened the call up to questions.

First up was James, from Ada, Okla., who wanted to know: What are you going to do about the new brigade of armed Internal Revenue Service agents?

The caller was referencing recent legislation that gives the IRS billions of dollars for tax enforcement, some of which could be used to hire more agents and help close the “tax gap” of unpaid federal taxes.

But Cole didn’t miss a beat in his response, echoing his House Republican colleagues by falsely claiming the funding would double the size of the IRS by hiring 87,000 agents who would work to audit everyone from small-business owners to farmers making less than $75,000 a year. He ignored the questioner’s suggestion that the agents would be armed but declared the funding “an amazing expansion of government” by a party that believes the average American is not “paying enough taxes.”

Republicans have floated no fewer than 12 different reasons to explain away the FBI search of former president Donald Trump’s residence in Florida. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

“That was just another one of the reasons why I voted no on the legislation,” Cole said. “Sorry that we couldn’t defeat it.”

The legislation does not direct the hiring of 87,000 armed agents. It does allot $80 billion over a decade throughout the agency to bolster taxpayer services and enforcement of the tax code.

But as Republicans work to find their message in the days after their standard-bearer’s Florida residence was searched by the FBI, the verbal attacks on federal law enforcement have become enmeshed with another talking point tied to a totally different issue: the idea that Democrats are supercharging a tax agency to surveil regular Americans.

Both issues came to a head last week as House Republicans returned to Washington to vote against the Inflation Reduction Act days after the search at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property, riling up supporters by conjoining the two issues as examples of extreme federal government overreach by Democrats.

A list of items seized in the FBI’s search of former president Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago home was unsealed on Aug. 12. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

“If the FBI can raid the home of a former US President, imagine what 87,000 more IRS agents will do to you,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) tweeted hours after the Mar-a-Lago search.

A job listing on the IRS website weeks before the legislation became law noted that applicants should be ready to “Carry a firearm and be willing to use deadly force, if necessary,” sparking Republicans to claim federal agents would soon be barreling into people’s homes.

The job listing has since been updated to remove that line, but it has not stopped Republicans from repeating it.

“Are they going to have a strike force that goes in with AK-15s already loaded, ready to shoot some small-business person in Iowa?” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) inquired on “Fox & Friends” last week.

While Republican members have stretched the truth about what the funding would do, the talking points are unlikely to go away.

Hyperbolic GOP claims about IRS agents and audits

Several GOP strategists focused on House races described the funding for the IRS as a gift for their candidates to draw contrasts with Democratic opponents ahead of the midterm elections on an issue they say voters universally dislike.

“It’s political suicide to raise people’s taxes and double the size of the most unpopular bureaucratic agency, but Democrats chose to do that. No one likes paying taxes, no one likes being harassed by the IRS and being squeezed for everything they have. So it’s an easy selling point to voters,” said one strategist who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail internal conversations about Republican campaign messaging.

It was apparent early on for Republicans that the IRS could be made into a wedge issue based on their own internal polling, strategists said. They have long believed targeting the IRS was in their best interest because of what they say are voters’ fears of being audited and increased enforcement.

While the Democrats’ sweeping “Build Back Better” legislation never became law after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) objected, Republicans were happy to see the IRS funding from it survive in the much slimmer deal Manchin struck with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) earlier this summer.

The Inflation Reduction Act gives the IRS more than $45 billion for tax enforcement that could be used to hire more agents and help close the “tax gap” of unpaid federal taxes. It also allots $25 billion for logistical operations within the agency, roughly $5 billion for business upgrades and another $3.2 billion to bolster taxpayer services.

Democrats have argued that Republican cuts across all levels of the federal government have created a massive backlog of unprocessed taxpayer paperwork. An IRS report to Congress this year showed that the pandemic contributed to a drastic spike of unprocessed tax returns, from 7.4 million at the end of the 2019 filing period to 35.8 million by the same time in 2021.

“While Democrats put people and country before politics and power, Republicans are knowingly lying to voters in defense of the wealthy tax cheats that back their campaigns,” said Tommy Garcia, a spokesman at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But Republicans believe targeting the IRS is fair game, with strategists noting that they still feel bruised after the agency disclosed during the Obama administration that it selected conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny before granting any privileges.

The IRA’s passage coinciding with the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago only adds to anti-federal-government sentiment among voters, strategists say.

“If Joe Biden is willing to use the federal government to go after the big guy,” another GOP strategist said, referencing Trump, “if they can do it to people in power, what can they do to you with no army of lawyers and no big voice?”

Strategists also said that telling voters Democrats are prioritizing funding the IRS over police or border security is an easy attack that inflames the GOP base. Moreover, framing the legislation as putting more money toward a bureaucratic agency at a time when people are already feeling the economic pinch of high inflation can point to a misalignment of priorities.

Yet the rhetoric targeting federal employees may come at a cost for Republicans. They have come under fire for their condemnations of the FBI and the Justice Department over the search, especially since the death of a gunman who was killed by police after trying to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati field office.

House GOP members deflected any suggestions that their rhetoric motivated the attacker, with one strategist noting that verbal attacks against agencies are fair game as long as members continue to disavow any violence.

“I would just tell everybody, please, no matter where you are on the issue, no matter how mad you are, please don’t do anything untoward,” Cole told listeners during his town hall Monday. “That’s just not appropriate and dangerous for all concerned.”

While GOP messaging lacks critical context about what the funding is actually going toward, it appears to be resonating with voters. During two focus groups of swing voters conducted Monday evening on behalf of progressive organizations, both groups brought up that they had heard IRS funding to hire more agents was included in the Democrats’ legislation.

“There’s some really great things [in this bill], but at the same time, hiring 87,000 IRS people I don’t think is the best allocation of costs,” one woman in a focus group said. “This bill is so deep, but I, unfortunately, you got to read it to understand that this is going to impact us greatly.”

Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.